Jaffareadstoo is delighted to introduce
Author of Charlatan
Hi Kate and a very warm welcome to Jaffareadstoo.
Thank you for spending time with us today and for telling us all about Charlatan
Tell us a little about Kate Braithwaite, author.
I am originally from Edinburgh, but now live in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania with my husband, three kids, two dogs, one cat and some fish. I studied English at Leeds University and have always had a real love of history as well as reading fiction. I used to be a teacher but now – along with writing - I mainly operate as short-order cook, laundry lady and taxi driver to my kids. I also write reviews and articles for the Historical Novel Society and Bookbrowse.com
Where did you get the first flash of inspiration for Charlatan?
Not long after becoming a mum for the first time I picked up a second-hand copy of Nancy Mitford’s book, The Sun King, thinking some non-fiction would be good for my brain cells while I was on maternity leave. Mitford describes the Affair of the Poisons, but not in huge detail. I had an immediate feeling of sympathy for Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan: the thirty-something mistress and mother of seven of the Louis XIV’s children who had to stand by and watch while the King abandoned her for a beautiful eighteen-year old. Learning that Athénaïs was suspected of involvement with fortune-tellers and poisoners - that there was a whole scandal I had never heard a whisper of before - really got me hooked.
Without giving too much away – what can you tell us about the story?
There are two narratives at play in Charlatan. The first is about Athénaïs, long-time mistress of Louis, struggling to come to terms with being replaced by a much younger woman. She drowns her sorrows in wine and gambling but her sister, Gabrielle, is determined that Athénaïs must win Louis back. At the same time, in Paris, a major police investigation is underway. The Château de Vincennes is filling up with fortune-tellers, magicians and priests, accused of poisoning and black masses, who claim to have clients within many of France’s most noble families. Assistant investigator, Louis Bezons, becomes entangled with a young female prisoner, one of several with a lot to say about Athénaïs and the lengths she has gone to over the years in order to keep Louis to herself. He wants to pursue the allegations against the King’s mistress but his superior, La Reynie, is not so sure. Athénaïs, meanwhile, has no idea how the past might be about to catch up with her.
Charlatan is very atmospheric – how much research did you need to do in order to bring the story to life and did you discover anything which surprised you about the court of Louis XIV?
Lots of research! In some ways it was like researching two different worlds: the criminal underworld of Paris and the claustrophobic court Louis created at Versailles. Although the novel takes place roughly in the years 1678 to 1681, I read a great deal about the court in the years preceding the events in the story in order to understand the relationship between Athénaïs and Louis and consider what her involvement with the Paris underworld might truly have been. One of my favourite primary sources is the letters Madame de Sévigné wrote to her daughter about life at Louis’ court. Her wonderfully gossipy and witty letters are a great source on everything from food to clothes to courtly bickering.
Whilst you are writing you must live with your characters. How did you feel about them when the book was finished? Did they turn out as expected?
It’s a weird thing. Some of them – particularly Athénaïs, Louis Bezons and the magician Lesage - were very clear to me from the start and I have huge affection for them, warts and all. Others changed as I wrote and developed in different drafts. Athénaïs’ sister, Gabrielle, for example, really developed as the story came together. She’s not the kindest of characters and I enjoy that about her. Louise de la Vallière, Louis’ first maîtresse-en-titre, who Athénaïs visits several times in the story, was also a pleasure to write. The scenes between those two are some of my favourites.
What were the challenges faced whilst writing the book?
The Affair of the Poisons is really very complex and I struggled to convey the sheer number of people caught up in the investigation. There were hundreds of prisoners making claims and counter claims and in the end I chose to amalgamate characters in some instances. I also had to omit aspects of the investigation altogether. The playwright, Racine, for example, was accused of poisoning his mistress by one of the characters in the novel, the fortune-teller La Voisin. I would have loved to include that somewhere but with fiction the reader expects a cohesive story and it just didn’t work with my plot. I was also very keen to keep as far as I could within the known historical record. I didn’t have any outcomes for any character that weren’t historically accurate so that constrained how the characters could behave. Writing like that is challenging, but its also great fun too.
Do you write the type of books you like to read and which authors influence you?
Years ago I read an interview with Fay Weldon where she said that most writers begin as readers and “end up writing the novel they want to read, if only because nobody else has got around to writing it.” That is completely true for me. I love historical fiction and if it has a really strong basis in fact, even better. Two writers I’ve read fairly recently and who do that just brilliantly are Naomi Wood and Susan Higginbotham. In Mrs Hemmingway, Wood creates all four of Hemmingway’s wives in compelling detail. In Hanging Mary, Susan Higginbotham tells the story of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the US government for her part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I was totally gripped by both of those novels. I’m also a big fan of writers like Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters and regularly manage to cook dinner with a crime novel in one hand and a spoon in the other.
What’s next - more historical fiction or something more contemporary?
I will be sticking with historical fiction. I’m working on completing a novel about a newly married couple that get caught up in the Popish Plot which took London by storm in 1678. It’s part love-story, part detective story and is set in a period of great turbulence and fear that I think has a lot of relevance for today’s world.
More about Charlatan..
How do you keep the love of the King of France?
1676. In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV.
Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges.
At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin.
About the Author
Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has lived in England and Canada where she studied creative writing at Toronto University, receiving the Marina Nemat Award and the Random House/University of Toronto Student writing prize for her historical fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and a freelance writer for Bookbrowse.com. Kate lives with her family in Pennsylvania.
Find out more on Kate's website
More about the novel can be found here
Follow her on Twitter @KMBraithwaite
Huge thank you to Kate for being my author in the spotlight today
and for sharing her novel, Charlatan with us.
~*My Thoughts about Charlatan*~
I've long been fascinated by the
French court of Louis XIV, and I've always rather fancied myself sweeping the
long corridors of Versailles, but since I am not in possession , as yet, of a
time travelling machine, I have to rely on the work of good authors, like Kate
Braithwaite, to bring this period alive in my imagination.
From the very beginning of this
story my imagination was fired and even as I turned the first page I was
transported back to a dark and dirty time, back to a time where danger lurked
in shadows and where good men, and bad, were toppled by greed and evil conspiracy.
These were indeed dark and scurrilous times and walking in the footsteps of the King brought with it its own particular brand of danger. I loved way the
Versaillian court comes to life, a life which is made all the more complex by the not so subtle ways of
wily women and by the deep and devilish claims of those corrupt individuals whose
lust for power overshadowed everything.
During the course of the novel there
is much to take in, not just from a historical perspective but also from the
lively way in which the characters go about their daily business. There is no
doubt that the author has researched her subject very well and this shows in
the fine attention to historical detail. I was completely beguiled by the
sights, sounds and scents of seventeenth century France, which captured the
very essence of Louis XIV’s time at Versailles, and which filled my senses with
a rich and vibrant awareness of history coming alive on the page.
Best Read with
...A good French
Claret and an earthy rabbit stew…